The Selby-Dale Riots of 1968

(Image courtesy of MNHS Visual Collections)
Battle lines were drawn throughout the United States between what could be considered to be the white establishment and an increasingly frustrated African American community. Leading up to 1968 Saint Paul had seen a growing divide between black and white groups brought to the forefront due to the unceremonious gutting of the predominantly African American Rondo neighborhood in 1961 by Interstate Highway 94 (Read More). The country was locked in a period of growing militancy with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and an on-going unpopular war in Viet Nam among the reasons to blame for a growing distrust of elected officials. Riots and other types of civil unrest littered the US and Saint Paul was not immune from these same issues plaguing the country. An incident at a dance in Stem Hall at the St. Paul Auditorium (now Roy Wilkins) in downtown would set off two days of mayhem in the Selby-Dale neighborhood. In the end four police officers were shot (all four recovered) and at least seventeen people were arrested. Color lines would be drawn, with the police and city officials placing the blame at the feet of a “criminal, hoodlum element” and the St. Paul Urban League feeling that the city acted inappropriately, launching the disturbance in their zeal to prosecute the minorities involved.

At 10pm on Friday August 30, 1968 in a men’s bathroom below Stem Hall an African-American “youth” brandished a .38-caliber pistol in a group of roughly 20 other men. Two off duty officers, John Lemmer and Herbert A Davis Jr., were hired as security at the dance and looked to disarm the man with the gun. The other men in the bathroom turned on the officers and attacked them. The two off duty officers escaped and were able to call for additional backup to help calm the growing situation. When reinforcements arrived they arrested the men that attacked Officers Lemmer and Davis Jr. and were walking them out of the hall when a large group blocked their exit. The twenty to thirty people then began throwing steel chairs and tables at the group of officers, as the standoff continued gunshots were fired at the police hitting Patrolman Arnold Westphal just below the left shoulder.

A second group of reinforcements were called and the police force at the dance grew to around fifty officers. At 10:20pm all squad cars available were called to the scene to disperse the large group. Tear gas was fired into the crowd and “helmeted officers formed solid lines to drive people out”. In the confusion and chaos the men that were initially arrested were able to escape into the night. The large crowd dispersed into smaller groups, making their way up toward Selby through the Cathedral Hill area “smashing windows of buildings and cars along the route”. At the top of the hill the chaos continued, with the center of the disturbance seeming to be concentrated at the corner of Victoria and Dayton. Gunshots were fired from the area at one point and cabbie Ralph Engman was pulled out of his cab and beaten by a group of up to 25 African American youths. Police intervened and were able to save him.

By nights end seven police were injured, including the one officer shot. Seven of the participants in the extended melee were arrested at the scene – five charged with unlawful assembly and two others taken to jail for having a semi-automatic rifle in the trunk of their car.

Unfortunately the violence would spill over into the following night. Four fire bombings set by someone (or some group) throwing Molotov cocktails through the windows of area businesses triggered a second night of rioting. Once again the entire police force were called to assist. A gun battle ensued near Dale/Carroll streets when the police arrived with “a number of squad cars and a fire truck (being) shot at”. It was reported that three more officers were shot, this time being hit with shotgun pellets (most likely from the gun of a single assailant). At around 3 am Sunday morning quiet was restored to the area with the help of additional police forces brought in from the Minneapolis and Maplewood departments. There were ten people arrested from the events of the second night.

Days later the NAACP commended the police department for how they handled the situation and worried that the “one percent of the Summit-University” community had given the rest a bad name. They believed that it was time to move forward and that both the black and white communities should look to find “solutions to the problems that cause such disturbances”. Saint Paul Mayor Thomas Byrne also spoke of looking to move past the weekends events with a call for “programs to rectify social injustices”. It would take many years for the area to recover from the nights of August 30-31st.
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